By Robert C. Lopez
October 28, 2016
What Mike Neal is doing, he admits, is “almost sacrilege” in North Carolina.
No pigs or pork products are in sight. But the scent of hickory and spice is enough to buckle the knees of most any barbecue lover.
Neal, 39, owns Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ on Randleman Road. The Durham native has helmed the restaurant and catering service for five years, serving chopped turkey barbecue, along with giant turkey legs, turkey wings, and specialties like Crack-n-Cheese.
“Barbecue in North Carolina is all about pork,” he says. “But I like being a trailblazer, and doing turkey barbecue has given me space to express some creativity that I probably would not have had, had I decided to pursue a more traditional route.”
How did you get started in the barbecue business?
My background is in chemical engineering. And I worked in the industry for several years before getting an MBA from Chapel Hill. A job took me out to Memphis, but North Carolina was home, and we had two small kids, and my wife said, “Let’s go back home.”
When I was in Memphis, I competed (in barbecue contests) because I used to brag so much about North Carolina barbecue. Cooking and smoking was a hobby. I’d be in my cave doing my smoking and experimenting.
And once we moved back to North Carolina, I started hitting up the barbecue joints. There was a guy who owned this place, and I stopped by and talked to him, and he expressed an interest in getting out of the business, so he could travel. I started helping him out. He fell ill, and before I knew it, this kind of fell in my lap.
What are some of your more unique dishes?
We prepare our turkeys Eastern-style, so you have the vinegar and pepper profiles.
One of the more interesting dishes that has done extremely well is a dish called Crack-n-Cheese, which is essentially a bowl of homemade mac-and-cheese, topped with turkey barbecue, crispy turkey cracklins and our signature barbecue sauce. We have a lot of turkey skins left over from making the barbecue. You make cracklins from them, and they’re probably as close to bacon as you can get without pork. It’s smoky. It’s crunchy.
What’s Thanksgiving like for you?
We do smoked and fried turkeys, whole turkeys. I don’t even want to count how many we did last year. It was ridiculous. Hundreds. We have people traveling from Durham, Pittsboro to pick them up. Last year, we had someone pick up four and take them up to New Jersey. I already got my first pre-order (in early August).
I convinced my mother-in-law to bring back her sweet potato pie. We did that a couple of years ago, and that went off really well, so she’s back here to help prep.
How is your family involved?
My 10-year-old daughter will hop up on the cash register and take orders, and she does a really good job. I’m astonished how well she does on the upsell. I go to pick her up from school, and I see three people with business cards that she’s given them. She’ll help with thinking about new dishes and so-forth. We were doing some what you would normally call pigs-in-a-blanket but with turkey franks, and I was trying to think what to call them. And she came up with Turkey Undercover.
Robert C. Lopez is a freelance writer based in High Point.